Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Interviews with Abe: Incitement

This year’s recipient of the Best Picture prize at the Ophir Awards, Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, is “Incitement,” which tells the story of the year leading up to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, focusing on the assassin himself, Yigal Amir. After a successful North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, the film serves as the opening night film for the 33rd Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles tonight. I had the chance to sit down with director Yaron Zilberman to talk about the experience of making this film.

What drew you to this subject and to make this particular movie?

It’s a national trauma. It’s a traumatic event on a personal level because I was part of the pro-peace movement in Israel. That assassination changed the course of history in the country. I always wanted to address it and talk about it. There were many questions about what really happened. There was much more to be interpreted that I was curious about before I started working on it. Once I began, it was fascinating – there were so many layers to it.

What were you most surprised to learn?

To really see that the assassin wasn’t a monster outside of the realm of the mainstream, as we were always told. This guy was almost a normative guy. Yes, he had extreme opinions, but he was part of society, talking with everyone about this murder. He was openly debating whether one should kill Rabin and announced his plans to do so. He went from protest to protest where people spoke in violent language of “blood and fire” and taking out Rabin. That was just the tip of the iceberg. In research, I realized there was a huge push towards that direction – it’s not that he was crazy.

Did you speak to Yigal Amir?

I did not speak to him personally. My researcher did since he’s Orthodox and so is Yigal. It’s a different kind of conversation where they immediately feel comfortable discussing nuances within the religious world. They had the same background, both having been active in Bnei Akiva, our national religious scout program. They were, in a way, speaking the same language. He spoke to him over the phone for hundreds of hours with questions my co-writer and I had prepared. He asked and came back with many stories, then went back with new questions to learn the whole world that helped us craft this story.

Do you think he would be pleased with his representation in this film?

He doesn’t think of himself as a villain, and, for so long, he was such a monster that now he can speak and express his opinions, which made him eager to talk. Whether he’s happy or not, we’ll see once he sees the movie. So far, he’s said that it’s a must-see movie because it’s important for democracy, even if he doesn’t agree with many things in the movie. It’s ironic because what he did by shooting Rabin was to fatally wound democracy.

You chose to end the film when Rabin died rather than continuing to follow Yigal in prison, where he has since gotten married and had a child. Was that purposeful?

My concept was that, until the first shot comes out of his gun, he’s still not a killer. Imagine that he goes there and decides not to shoot Rabin and just comes home. He’s not a murderer – there’s no issue with him, just another guy who turned out to want to do something extreme and then not go through with it. The moment he shoots him, he becomes a villain. That’s when I stop being interested in him. That’s the moment that I depart from him. The entire story is told through his journey, but once he shoots Rabin, I’m no longer on that journey with him. I don’t really care, I just want him to be in jail forever.

It’s hard to watch this film and not think a lot about HBO’s “Our Boys.” They’re both stories that get to the heart of how a deep devotion to religion drives people to think that murder is acceptable and even encouraged. There is certainly some concern that it doesn’t do a lot for Israel and Judaism and their worldwide standing. What do you think?

I haven’t had a chance to watch “Our Boys,” but I will definitely do so soon. I don’t think that it’s bad for Israel, but good to see that the country and filmmakers can self-criticize and criticize the government. That people can watch it and say whatever they want to say shows the strength of Israel and of its people as a nation. There are countries where you can’t do that. In Israel, you can. The fact that we criticize certain governments and view certain rabbis as inciting in the same way, pushing to violence, doesn’t mean that the entire Israel is a bad place. It means that these people are a part of Israel that needs to change.

There are some, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who are unhappy with the film.

Yes. Miri Regev, especially, the culture minister. When Bibi doesn’t like something, she announces it, and in our case, she called for a boycott of the movie without having seen it. In Israel, the moment she says that, people start to watch. We’ve been waiting for her to say that, so it’s all good.

What has the response to the film been like, and what do you expect from tonight at the Israel Film Festival?

In Israel, the movie became a phenomenon. We crossed 150,000 people, which is big for Israel, especially for something that’s not a romantic comedy or fun. It’s a drama with an ending that is devastating. They invited me to speak last week at a peace rally where I spoke in front of 50,000 people, the first time in 24 years since the murder that they’ve had someone from outside the political world. High school students and teachers have gone to see it, which is great, and every institution – policemen, soldiers – wants to have their people go see it and discuss it and how it relates to the future of Israel. How do we move forward, and how can we stop the next one? As for the United States, the public will likely see parallels to what’s happening here with Donald Trump and Bibi, the same kind of inciting language and groups supporting them.

Have members of Rabin’s family seen it, and what do they think?

They have, and yes. His daughter, who is in a way responsible for his legacy, running his museum, is a major supporter of the movie. She’ll be here next week for several of our screenings. The first time she saw the movie, she cried from the first frame to the last frame. She hugged me and said great things about it. She believes this is the history of what happened in Israel and has totally embraced it.

Can you talk about your decision to use a lot of archive footage rather than casting anyone as Rabin?

Using footage supports the idea that it’s true. The first time that Yigal is seen watching Rabin on television with Clinton and Arafat in Washington, you already see a relationship with reality. Every time we get into a question about whether it’s real or not, I’ll show you more archive footage to show you that it’s true. I won’t tell you that a rabbi said something; I’ll show you a clip of them saying it on camera. It gives the power of truth to the story.

Was anything created or embellished for the film?

I didn’t really add anything. It was important for me not to, because once you do that, there’s a credibility issue which can put everything in doubt. What I had to do was to imagine what conversation occurred between people, using things that I knew happened whether the words were exactly what they said to each other, between Yigal and his girlfriend or his father. Based on interviews and what I read about them, I invented dialogue.

I know that the film won the Ophir Israeli Oscar for Best Picture and also an award for casting. Can you talk about finding some of your main players?

Early on, we decided on two main concepts for casting. The first is that it must be a Yemenite family so that they can bring their world and to discuss this major issue that the assassin came out of this community. They are the only people that can really know the behavior, way of talking, and religious elements. The second was that we wouldn’t take famous actors, just an ensemble of amazing actors. When you have a famous actor, it’s harder to imagine that person in the role. You can overcome it, but we’re not accustomed to it in Israeli society like you are here. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln and you can accept it, but it doesn’t work that way in Israel. So we wanted someone relatively unknown to keep it humble and mundane, so that you don’t have a person that’s bigger than the situation.

I’ve seen the film marketed as a thriller, but to me it plays a lot more like a standard drama. Even the climactic scene feels relatively relaxed, not embellished or dramatized to heighten the energy or speed up events.

The approach was very naturalistic. It’s almost like a documentary. I always wanted this to be a narrative, but I wanted it to be as close to a documentary in how we selected shots. It’s as if Yigal had called us and said “Listen, don’t tell anyone, but in a year and a half I’m going to shoot Rabin, and I am allowing you to follow me.” That was the feeling I wanted to create. The realism was very important because there’s a doubt in Israel that this actually happened like this. In other films, you know they exaggerate, and you don’t really buy it. You’re enjoying a movie. I didn’t want this to be a movie since it’s such a trauma for Israel. My number one goal with this film was for it to shake Israelis to their core. Israel has been talking about this movie for six weeks. The movie is questioning everything that we think about the assassination. We’re no longer willing to accept that there was no incitement. The realism, the naturalism, the actors, the archival footage – everything was there to artistically support the message we were trying to send. We’re also hoping people will be able to see it as a universal film where people really question the motives of assassins and whether they were pushed by anyone to do it, and what can be learned from that.

As a winner of the Israeli Oscar for Best Picture, this film is now eligible for the Oscar for Best International Feature. What do you think about that?

We’re going to do our best. We’re going to show it and talk about it, and the Academy members will decide. It’s their decision, not mine.

You can see “Incitement” at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles. It is scheduled for a theatrical release in the United States in early 2020.

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